Plastic Paradise

Heal the Bay's Kirsten James, left, and Sarah Sikich, right, enjoy a shave ice with their fellow eco-activist Leslie Tamminen. The group participated in the just concluded International Marine Debris Conference in Hawaii.

Today’s guest bloggers are Kirsten James, Heal the Bay’s Water Quality Director, and Sarah Sikich, Coastal Resources Director. Here they discuss their experience traveling to Hawaii last week and participating in the 5th International Marine Debris Conference.

Sarah: It’s unreal – spending a week in Hawaii for work! Not to mention meeting some of the leading researchers, government agencies, environmental organizations, and explorers working on marine debris and plastic pollution issues. Was there any research presented that you found particularly memorable?

Kirsten: It’s hard to pick just one presentation but one that stands out is the work being done by Dr. Jan A. van Franeker from the Netherlands.  He gave several revealing talks on his research with Northern Fulmars, a marine bird species. He found that in the North Sea, the “average” Northern Fulmar flies around with 0.3 grams of plastic in the stomach, rising to 0.6 grams in more polluted areas.  If you scale this bird up to the size of an average human, that would equal 30 grams of plastic, resembling a lunchbox full of plastic sheets, foams, threads and fragments!  How about you, did any of the presentations stand out?

Sarah: I’m glad to see how much research is being focused on endocrine disruptors and plastics. Many researchers in the field have raised concerns about whether chemicals associated with plastics are leaching into the tissues of wildlife and fish ingesting this trash. Previously little work had been done to determine whether this was actually occurring. Several scientists presented preliminary research at the conference showing that chemical plastic additives (like phthalates and Bisphenol A) and PCBs that stick to plastics are present in the tissues of animals that have ingested plastic materials. Potential hormone system disruption is also of concern. Pretty scary stuff.  But, at least we were learning about it in blissful, tropical Hawaii. How did the conference location influence your experience?

Kirsten: Most people consider Hawaii a paradise.  However plastic pollution has really impacted the beaches and waters of the Hawaiian Islands, in particular the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.  Washed-up plastic is the primary resident on many of the remote Hawaiian Islands.

One of the most interesting presenters at the conference was Dr. Kathy Townsend of the University of Queensland.  She found that 36% of turtles studied from the eastern Moreton Bay region in Australia have died through the interactions with marine debris.  Over 50% of the inorganic material found in the necropsies was from film-like plastics (e.g. plastic bags).  During the conference our opportunity to visit Laniakea beach on the North Shore of Oahu really influenced me, especially since threatened green sea turtles frequent this beach.  Seeing these magnificent creatures after hearing Dr. Townsend’s talk was very impactful and brought our reason for being there full circle.

Sarah: Yes, the presentations and panel discussions were informative, and brought to light new ideas for combating plastic pollution. But, some of the most worthwhile times throughout the week were those spent talking with people from around the world about their work during meals, reception activities, and time between events. It was great to see so many people in the early mornings out in the ocean enjoying the resource they are fighting so hard to protect. Surfing with Charlie Moore, a marine debris icon, was a huge highlight. But, no conference is ever perfect. It was kind of uncomfortable having the American Chemistry Council and Coca-Cola Company sponsor the proceedings and influence the conference content.

Kirsten: At times it felt like industry did have center stage at the conference to spout their rhetoric about how education and recycling will solve the marine debris problem (they refuse to use the term “plastic pollution”).   However there was strong representation from the California Clean Seas Coalition (nine members were present and spoke at various sessions) and other NGOs to spread the message that we need target trash reductions, regulation and legislation in order to rid our oceans of plastic.  It was interesting to hear that industry was absent at the last marine debris conference  11 years ago.  I think their large presence this time shows that we are making so much progress on reducing the use of single-use plastics; we definitely have industry breaking a sweat! Now we have to think next steps.  How do you think the conference will affect future efforts to curb plastic pollution?

Sarah: The conference organizers – the United Nations Environment Program and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – announced their plans to develop a strategy for prevention and reduction of marine debris based upon the conference proceedings. I hope they take the opportunity to be visionary and establish global target reduction for trash in our oceans. We need to move beyond yesterday’s “solutions.”  Although education and recycling have an important role, they cannot solve this issue alone. Strong regulatory and policy action is needed that prevents trash from getting into waterways in the first place. Target reductions, along with bans or charges on the most prevalent items found in aquatic environments, must be established to truly address the plastic pollution problem.

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